For seven seasons, Josh Smith has shown us that he can be the best player on the floor. For seven seasons, he has shown us that he can be the worst player on the floor. The fact these opposites often appear in the same game is what makes him so maddening.
This is why after seven seasons, it’s time to say goodbye.
Smith is not the biggest problem on the Hawks’ roster, he’s merely the greatest lightning rod for criticism. He’s not the player who has crippled the payroll and just followed the richest contract in NBA history — $123,658,089 — with his least-productive season. That would be Joe Johnson.
For as much as Smith is hammered for launching three-point shots, he had a better shooting percentage from three-range this season (33.1 percent) than Johnson (29.7). Johnson battled some injuries (elbow, thumb). But so did Smith (knee), and he’s not supposed to be a three-point shooter. So who should we scream louder about?
Here’s the problem: Smith clearly is getting fed up as the Hawks’ player who’s constantly being duct-taped to a post in the middle of the town square.
I spoke to him the day following one bad shooting performance in the playoffs and he said, “I know sometimes I take shots I shouldn’t. But I’m not the only one in here who takes bad shots. I just get talked about more than anybody else.”
There is some truth to that. There’s also some truth to the fact that some of coach Larry Drew’s offensive sets leave Smith out in the corner, away from the basket, although that doesn’t mean he has to shoot from out there.
Smith’s slow boil continued when Drew called him out following a poor performance in Game 2 of the Chicago playoff series. (“I want him flying all over the place. I don’t want him sitting out there just shooting jump shots and trying to make plays off the dribble.”)
Then, following his phenomenal Game 4 performance against the Bulls (23 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists, two blocks, one steal), Smith seized the moment.
“The media is trying to ‘T.O.’ me,” he said, referencing NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens, a frequent target of blame.
He called his relationship with fans “a love-hate thing.” There’s no reason to believe that’s going to change.
The Hawks might finally be willing to trade Smith. But equally important is that Smith may actually welcome a trade. He needs a fresh start, with a new organization, new teammates and new fans – all some place far away from his hometown.
For as much as Smith is criticized, he is not a bad guy. He’s a good guy. He wants to succeed. He wants to be accepted and appreciated as much as anybody — if not more so, because he’s from Atlanta.
We get on the Hawks for sometimes looking like they just don’t care. That generally isn’t the problem with Smith. It’s more about him going after solutions in the wrong way.
The risk of trading Smith is that he finally turns into that consistent game-changer we’ve envisioned since his rookie season. The downside to not trading him now is if he doesn’t become that soon, his value on the trade market will plummet.
Hawks general manager Rick Sund wanted to give the core of this team one more chance to show what it can do. There was improvement this postseason – upsetting Orlando and taking Chicago to six games without their starting point guard – but this probably is as far as this unit can go.
Johnson can’t be traded because of his contract. Al Horford won’t be traded because he’s the team’s most consistent player. Jeff Teague suddenly shows promise. That leaves Smith as the only player who other teams really want. They see great potential without a long-term commitment (two years left on his contract).
Dealing Smith gives the Hawks a chance to acquire a legitimate starting center. Teague’s ascent opens the possibility of including Kirk Hinrich and his expiring $8.1 million contract in the trade.
There are options. But after seven years, Smith’s exit would be beneficial for both parties.
By Jeff Schultz